Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

The neuropsychological profile of children at high risk of developing an eating disorder

R. Kotharia1 c1, F. Solmia1, J. Treasurea2 and N. Micalia1

a1 Behavioural and Brain Sciences Unit, Institute of Child Health, University College London, UK

a2 Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, UK


Background There is a large body of evidence indicating that eating disorders (EDs) are characterized by particular neuropsychological profiles. We aimed to further explore whether impairments in neuropsychological functioning previously found in ED groups are present prior to onset, or are secondary to the disorder.

Method This is the first study to explore neuropsychological functioning in children born to a mother with a lifetime ED, who are therefore at high risk of developing an ED, in a large cohort sample. We investigated intelligence and attention at age 8 years (n = 6201) and working memory (WM) and inhibition at age 10 years (6192) in children who are at high risk of developing an ED, compared to children who are not.

Results The children of women with lifetime anorexia nervosa (AN) showed high full-scale and performance IQ, increased WM capacity, better visuo-spatial functioning, and decreased attentional control. The children of women with lifetime bulimia nervosa (BN) showed comparatively poor visuo-spatial functioning.

Conclusions Our findings suggest that high intelligence, increased WM capacity and impaired attentional control might be intermediate phenotypes on the pathway between genetic vulnerability and the development of an ED.

(Received April 27 2012)

(Revised August 06 2012)

(Accepted August 21 2012)

(Online publication October 01 2012)

Key words

  • Attention;
  • eating disorder;
  • inhibition;
  • intelligence;
  • working memory